Most people save up for years to visit the Hawaiian islands—but for the past few months, by leveraging my skills and labor, I am able to live here rent-free, bill-free and, for the most part, stress-free. While I have done this in other locations like New York, North Carolina and Tennessee, living in a sought-after tourist destination for free has been a whole new experience.
Work-trade is a popular form of alternative travel. Interested work-traders can find opportunities through websites like Workaway, WWOOF and HelpX. The hosts set up a profile page explaining their needs and what they are able to offer, and work-traders initiate a conversation to see if the two are a good fit. Some opportunities are selective and coveted, with months-long waitlists, while other hosts will take in anyone and everyone.
I have been participating in programs like Workaway for around four years now. Work-trade allows travel to happen in a more connected, conscious way. Rather than treat the destination as a commodity or something to be taken from and used, I (and my fellow travelers) become part of the culture. We integrate ourselves into the surrounding community and nearly become locals ourselves.
Recently, I joined a farm and restaurant in a rural area of one of the Hawaiian islands. The business is booming, so my hosts can afford to provide a unique experience for motivated work-traders. The room and board are nicer than many other places that I’ve visited, and the work is different every day.
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It Takes Time to Adjust From City Life to Living Off the Grid
Manual labor is often thought of as bottom-of-the-barrel work. This may be the case in many locations where wages are low and there is no other option for work. But for a group of young travelers, farm work can present itself as paradise, a drastic difference from the hustle and bustle of city life that most are accustomed to. A typical day in the field might include harvesting and washing lettuce, planting new garden beds and landscaping the property.
In addition to farm labor, some work-traders cook in the restaurant or bake in the bakery. These are typical commercial kitchens, equipped with top-of-the-line gear. The success of these businesses allows the farm to continue to run as smoothly as it does—money tends to fix most practical problems on the farm.
I enjoy the opportunity to be outside, touch the plants and learn natural skills. Even when I’m working in the on-site restaurant, I’m still outside, as the building is open-air. When chopping vegetables in the morning, I can face one way to look out to the forest, or I can turn around for a view of the ocean. When sunset comes, we often take a break to take in the cotton-candy skies. The experience is a stark contrast to the boxed-in kitchens that I am used to in my past work.
The accommodations are not for the faint-hearted. After all, we are living in a Hawaiian jungle with only the essential amenities. Those who come from the comforts of the city often go through a period of shock, and it can take weeks before the ever-present spiders become friends rather than foes.
While I’m used to it now, I can recall being stressed out at one of my first off-grid living situations. The bugs, the lack of air-conditioning, the lack of amenities—I was residing in a downtown metropolis just days before, and the forest gave me a scare. However, after just a few days, I became accustomed to the changes.
This work-trade opportunity operates on a first-come, first-served basis, with new arrivals starting their residency in a tent. As turnover happens, everyone receives an upgrade to their accommodations—tent-dwellers move into dorm rooms, and dorm residents eventually acquire their own cabin.
When I arrived, the farm was short-staffed, so I was in my own cabin within the first week. Yet some have lived in a tent for weeks or months on end.
Other work-trade accommodations have ranged from private apartments to 10-bed dorm rooms to a whole house. The housing tends to reflect the skills and effort expected of the work-trader. When I had a nicer residence, I was usually performing skilled work (such as photography or website design, rather than farm labor). One woman set me up on the entire second floor of her home that had just been renovated—a bedroom, a living room, a full kitchen and a large balcony overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. I would mow the lawn, build garden beds and plant veggies in the morning, with the rest of my day reserved for lounging and living in the off-grid “penthouse.”
It’s Easier to Eat Healthily With Work-Trade
Being on a Hawaiian farm means that fresh fruits and vegetables abound. The residents’ kitchen is stocked full of just about anything that we request or require: every kind of cooking oil, every vegetable and herb that we can get our hands on, all types of grain (quinoa, rice, couscous, pasta), condiments and toppings and endless fruit (star apples, papayas, bananas, citrus, lilikoi, guava and more).
We never have to think twice about eating a healthy meal. Come 12:30 (lunch) and 5:30 (dinner), a fresh, home-cooked meal is waiting for me. No effort needed. I don’t have to choose between McDonald’s or cooking: healthy food just awaits me.
There’s no fast food, no deep fryer, no supermarkets—just simple, good food. Living in the city, I always have goals of eating a balanced diet. But convenience foods always seem to find their way to me. But it’s a totally different story here on the farm.
If we want an indulgent chocolate cake, we better be prepared to mix the batter, bake it to perfection, frost it ourselves. If we want French fries, we have to slice up the potatoes, fry them ourselves, figure out how to dispose of the oil properly. With that level of effort required to eat unhealthy food, we usually choose more nourishing options.
A typical lunch menu might include tofu, quinoa, sauteed broccoli, tzatziki sauce and pasta salad. That night’s dinner might be grilled portabellos, roasted asparagus, honey-glazed carrots and Parmesan kale salad.
Work-Trade Allows Me to Meet New People
With around 20 residents at any given time, there is always a diverse cast of characters. The personnel is dominated by wanderers and travelers and positivity, but there are those who bring the pains and problems of their previous life. Some come without any intentions or goals and fall into alcoholism or other forms of despair. That being said, the general atmosphere is friendly, supportive and communal.
The people here have encouraged me to climb more trees here than I have in my whole life. Just yesterday, a friend and I jumped into a star apple tree to access the bounty of fruit that was waiting to be picked. We scored over 40 and had a fruit feast with the rest of the crew.
There is a massive banyan tree in the middle of the property, equipped with a ladder to allow access to its branches. I’ve spent hours in this tree, always with others, chatting about our day or just munching away at some fresh fruit from that day.
Mushrooms and marijuana flow freely. The clothing is scant, and underwear is sacrilegious. Hippie talk is the norm—astrology, past lives, alternative music. One has endless opportunities to socialize with residents and locals, but there is also the option to retreat and work on yourself and your own goals.
Many are childlike, and they influence others to embrace their inner youth—hanging out in trees, smiling and rejoicing over a new species of fruit or splashing and feeling giddy in the waves. Everyone is able to simply be themselves. They no longer need to hide or conform like they might have done in their “normal” lives back on the mainland.
My experiences with work-trade and farm life keep bringing me closer to an ideal lifestyle. Until I find that (or even if I never do), I’ll keep livin’ and learnin’, meeting new people and finding some peace.